Dhanush At 40 Has A Lot To Live Up To

As Dhanush turns 40, we look at the kind of entertainer he is and how he is not the kind of entertainer that his ex father-in-law Rajnikanth was

Dhanush turns 40 (Photo: NH Library)
Dhanush turns 40 (Photo: NH Library)

Subhash K Jha

When Dhanush is good, he is so very good he makes you forgive all the sins of his excesses which I suspect he indulges in to please his fanbase in contradiction to what he claims to be his aspiration as an actor. Once, perhaps in an unguarded moment, Dhanush has said to me, “My motivations as an actor are very different from my (former) father-in-law’s. He is a superstar of the masses. I don’t aim to be that.”

Dhanush’s films sometimes make history, Karnan, for instance. Dhanush plays the role of a voice of a voiceless village. The hand that won’t hold itself back.The face of the social protester who is no posterboy. He is an actor. A doer. He will kill. He won’t be stopped. Dhanush is so volatile in Karnan, I have never felt more compromised, more a part of the socio-economical system that allows a handful to have all the wealth and power.

Another film I liked immensely was Enai Noki Paayum Thota. Dhanush, playing a 20-year old was a bit of a stretch. The mating games are played with an enchanting elegance. This is romance in the purest cinematic sense, ethereal and unattainable, cadenced and magnetic, shot with an eye and ear for workaday sublimity.

Director Gautham Menon lets the couple find and celebrate idealized love in routine places. Even as we savour the couple’s moments together, the narrative takes a sharp swerve into violence. The restless narrative shifts to Mumbai for action scenes which are as elegantly shot as the romance. Menon never allows any awkwardness to seep into his cinema even as he negotiates impossible genre jumps like a seasoned trapeze artist.

Says Aanand, “Dhanush is not LIKE my brother. He IS my brother. That won’t change. I have the kind of bonding with Dhanush that I cannot have with actors in Mumbai. Whether we work together or not Dhanush is part of my life and I am his. After Raanjhanaa we worked together again in Atrangi Re after eight years. Our relationship doesn’t depend on whether we work or not work together. Whenever he is in Mumbai he will stay with me. When I am in Chennai I stay with him. I feel embarrassed to even speak about this. What is there to talk about in this? Dhanush is a part of my life.”

Anand is very proud of the global recognition that’s coming Dhanush’s way after The Gray Man. It is certainly a marked improvement on Dhanush’s earlier attempt to go international in The Extraordinary Journey Of A Fakir. It confirmed our worst suspicions about what Indian actors are willing to do to be seen in “Hollywood films”(that’s how all international ventures shot outside Asia are known in India). The deplorable film unabashedly celebrated cultural stereotypes.

Worse still, Dhanush grabbed the opportunity to display his most pronounced interpretations of the ingenue’s touristic delight. He squealed, he moaned, he sucked in his cheeks in stupefied wonder staring at firangi monuments, artifacts and, yes, the women too. As his character Ajatshatru Patel travelled across the world sitting in a suitcase and in a wardrobe. Dhanush asserted all the cultural stereotypes associated with brown skinned ex-colonists: that they are extremely naïve and eminently flexible…in this case literally so, since Dhanush could fit into any size and space, boxed or otherwise, and reach to any part of the world and make friends.

He was Raj Kapoor whose “joota is japani, patloon englishtaani , sar pe laal topi rusi, phir bhi dil(and pugdi) Hindustani”.

Thank God for The Gray Man. The role is far briefer than what Dhanush played in The Extraordinary Journey Of A Fakir. But there is dignity in what Dhanush does in The Gray Man. He should never let go of it. Being dignified becomes Dhanush.

There is nothing more self-indulgent than a superstar at the pinnacle of his stardom trying to show the world that he isnt self-indulgent.

It reminds me of that superstar named Rajinikanth who "allows" other actors to take centrestage, knowing that even if he stands grinning in the corner of a frame, the audience will be looking at no one but him.

Dhanush has the Tamil audiences eating out of his hands. He can do anything, almost anything, he likes, and the fans would be with him. The slobbering raves for his new film are proof enough. In "Vada Chennai" he plays Anbu, a carrom player (like Siddharth in Chandan Arora's "Striker") who repeatedly ends up in jail where he befriends dons, gangsters and their cronies.

The brutality is kept at bay. The director Vetrimaan has had enough of it in his last film.

To give the very routine gangster drama an epic feel, the director (who earlier helmed that raw but flawed film "Vissaranai" about police atrocities) spreads the narrative and the characters into a stretched-out sprawl which takes us nowhere. At the end of the cumbersome three-hour film, I realised I was standing at the same place where the film had begun.

This isn't to say that the cycle of life is completed. It's just depleted and dismantled scene by scene until we are left staring at a film that equates dark exteriors and slimy roads with the shadowy glances thrown at a soul that's gone completely corrupt.

The mounting is impressive, though. So is Dhanush's changing hairstyle over the decades. He is lanky enough to carry off the role of a teenager in the first flush of love. The object of Dhanush's adoration is Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh) who plays that emboldened, impassioned, street-smart sweetheart whom Dhanush loves to kiss in his films.

When a local goon (there are so many of them it's impossible to keep track) heckles the couple, Dhanush's Anbu gets murderous.

The scenes of gang war and internecine rivalry are shot on suitably dark, dingy and desolate locations so that glorifying violence is never an option. But celebrating it, is.

Director Vetrimaaran seems awed by the antisocial world that his characters inhabits. Every character is a potential law-breaker. This fact we are given to ingest from the start. Dhanush's character is constantly in a crowd of potential rioters and murderers.

He is the Common Man with an axe to grind. He gets to grind it in grating leisure. We are often invited to participate in the wages of lawlessness. But the recurrent prison scenes are never compelling enough.

Many times the gangsters are hard to tell apart from one another, not only because the film is shot largely in the night light. It's not just the characters who have something to hide. It's the film's chosen karma. It conceals more than it reveals, more for the sake of effect than authenticity.

If Dhanush wants to play characters contrary to the ones played by his illustrious father-in-law, he must ensure that the projects are credible and authentic, not merely to impress audiences. His obsession with establishing an iconic reputation at odds with Rajinikanth's is quite obvious. In "Vada Chennai", a Rajinikanth potboiler is played out for jail inmates as Dhanush hobnobs with his prison pals.

The message is clear. Dhanush doesn't want to be Rajinikant, The Entertainer. He wants to be the reverse of that entity. Which in this case is not "non-entertainer".

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